“I liken myself to The Fool in the Tarot deck,” Stuart Kaplan told me. “Every day is a new adventure for me between researching, managing U.S. Games Systems and the Creative Whack Company, collecting, and traveling.” As the long-established president of an important Tarot and playing card company, the manufacturer of the most popular Tarot decks in the world, and the creator of the voluminous reference work The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Kaplan has long since proved his wisdom in Tarot matters. Yet the Fool remains a particularly apt card for Kaplan, for many reasons, not least of which is his birthday: April Fools Day.
The Fool stands for new beginnings, for blank slates, for innocence. It’s also the card of taking a chance, seizing an opportunity. As the first of the sequence of the Major Arcana (at least according to the most popular theory), it stands for the first step of a great journey. All of these apply to Kaplan, who as a young man took two steps that would help revitalize Tarot, first in the U.S. and then around the world: first, he began importing Tarot cards to the United States. Then, he began publishing them through his own company.
This was a new beginning in more ways than one. For Kaplan, it would eventually lead to a career change and a lifetime as a publisher, collector and author of Tarot and playing card decks, games and books. For the U.S., it marked the beginning of a Tarot renaissance; the explosion of interest in Tarot that began in the late 60s was fueled by, and in turn fueled, an increased availability of decks, many of which were supplied by Kaplan. Although there were Tarot decks made and sold in the U.S. prior to Kaplan’s involvement (such as the de Laurence and Albano re-workings of the Rider-Waite deck), it was Kaplan who provided mass-produced, affordable decks to U.S. customers through mainstream bookstores.
Kaplan was always interested in games, and in 1965 created a board game called Student Survival, in which players attempted to graduate college without running out of money. However, when he discovered Tarot, Kaplan was living a life far removed from games and from the exotic pictures on Tarot cards. His background was in marketing and finance, and he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, America’s oldest and most prestigious business school. As he tells it, in February 1968, he was working on Wall Street, “responsible for overseeing several coal mining operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and a juvenile furniture plant in Tennessee, along with evaluating potential investment acquisitions.” On a visit to Germany, he visited the Nuremberg Toy Fair, partly to seek gifts for his five children, and partly to satisfy his own curiosity about games. He also remembers another motive: “As a total departure from my job,” he said, “I thought it would be interesting to explore the possibilities of importing gift and game items.”
On the last day of the fair, Kaplan came across a small exhibition booth belonging to AG Müller & Cie of Neuhausen, Switzerland. “They had a Swiss 1JJ Tarot deck tucked away in a corner of the booth along with the range of Swiss playing cards that they manufactured,” he remembered. “I picked up the deck and had no idea what it was except that it seemed interesting. The images on the cards intrigued me. I am a researcher at heart, and I planned to study each of the images on the 22 Major Arcana in hopes of unraveling their meaning, and learning about the origin of the images.”
Kaplan decided to make the Swiss 1JJ Tarot (also known as the 1JJ Swiss Tarot and the Tarot 1JJ) his test case in the field of game imports. “I negotiated the rights and ordered 5,000 decks,” he recalled. “AG Müller wasn't selling that many Tarot decks in an entire year, and they thought it was surprising that anyone would want to purchase so many Tarot decks, but I saw some possibilities in distributing them in the States.”
Kaplan began at the top, pitching the deck to New York’s largest and best-known bookstore at the time, Brentano’s. The bookstore made an initial order of 100 decks. Even more fatefully, the Brentano’s buyer, Henry Levy, suggested that Kaplan write a book about the cards, to explain what they meant and how they could be used. The result was Kaplan’s first book on Tarot, Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling. At under a hundred pages, and many of those consisting of illustrations, it was a simple book containing only a little more information than the little white booklets packaged with most decks today. “Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling was a learning process for me,” Kaplan admitted. “I was not sufficiently informed about the subject to write anything of substance, beyond the traditional meanings of the cards. Over time, with a lot of research, we all grow in knowledge, and this was the situation for me.”
Still, Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling presented a very brief introduction to the history of the cards, a description of each card’s divinatory meaning, and instructions for seven different spreads. At a time when there were only a few widely available books on Tarot, it found a ready market. “It was reprinted more than twenty times and sold over 700,000 copies, which still amazes me given its simplicity,” Kaplan mused.
The Swiss 1JJ Tarot also sold well. It’s an unusual deck with an unusual title; the "JJ" stands for Jupiter and Juno, the names of two Roman deities. “In deference to the Catholic Church, AG Müller changed the title on The Popess and The Pope cards to Juno and Jupiter, and they named the deck Swiss 1JJ,” Kaplan explained. This deck became well known to a certain generation of TV watchers, who remember its use on the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. Although he wasn’t aware of that show’s use of Tarot, the general image promulgated by such appearances in the media created anxiety for Kaplan. He feared that the Tarot’s occult associations might lead to difficulties in the respectable business world. In fact, Kaplan originally published Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling under a slightly different name, S. R. Kaplan.
“Several years earlier, I had completed a book, Mining, Minerals and Geosciences: A World Source Directory and it was selected by Library Journal as one of the best technical books of the year 1965,” he explained. “I was contacted by UNESCO to update the book every three years, so I thought it best to keep the authors as two different people in case the association with Tarot would not sit well with UNESCO.” Kaplan couldn’t hide his identity from everyone, however, particularly not from a diligent copyright examiner. “When Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling was released,” he remembered, “I received a telephone call from the recording clerk at the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress, asking in an incredulous voice whether the same person who authored the mining reference book was also now writing about Tarot! Fortunately, Tarot today is mainstream, without the early association to evil doings.”
A few years after releasing the Swiss 1JJ deck and its accompanying book, Kaplan decided to expand the Tarot line of his young company with another deck. He approached his friends at AG Müller, and together they settled on a Marseilles-style deck based on eighteenth-century woodcuts by Claude Burdel, which Kaplan called Tarot Classic. The deck first came out in 1972, and was published by Kaplan’s company U.S. Games Systems in the U.S., and by AG Müller in Europe.
To go with that deck, Kaplan wrote a longer, more detailed, and more fully researched book. “I was anxious to write a second book that had some meaningful substance about Tarot, and Tarot Classic was the result,” he remembered.
The Tarot Classic book, also published in 1972, has a much more extensive essay on the esoteric background of Tarot, touching on important figures such as Antoine Court de Gébelin, Ettellia, Papus, and others. “I am an obsessive researcher,” Kaplan explained. “I purchased all the books written by these authors and dozens more, and I read everything I could find.” Kaplan mentioned that he had even located and purchased the nine-volume set of Court de Gébelin’s Le Monde Primitif, published in Paris in the 1770s and 80s, which includes the important 1781 chapter “Du Jeu des Tarots.” This essay marked the beginning of Tarot’s acceptance by European occultists as an esoteric system of knowledge, as well as an occult tool.
One figure that Kaplan discussed for the first time in Tarot Classic was Arthur Edward Waite, designer of the Rider Tarot, now popularly known as the Rider-Waite or the Rider-Waite-Smith pack. Indeed, at about the time the Tarot Classic book was completed, Kaplan took another of his adventuresome, Fool-like steps: he republished Waite’s Tarot deck.
“I was not aware of the Rider-Waite when I initially imported the Swiss 1JJ deck,” he admitted. But all that would change. “With the surprising success in the first several years of importing and selling some 200,000 Tarot decks—the Swiss 1JJ and Tarot Classic—I was interested in expanding the range of Tarot,” he continued. Donald Weiser, president of the occult and esoteric imprint Weiser Books, suggested that Kaplan investigate the status of the Rider-Waite Tarot. As he discovered, the rights were held by Hutchinson Publishing, successor to Rider & Company, under rights granted from the National Trust in the U.K. Kaplan wasted no time. “I went to London,” he remembered, “and negotiated the rights for worldwide distribution.”
Kaplan’s success in creating an authorized edition of the Rider-Waite deck was a testament to his ability as a negotiator. He was able not only to secure the rights, but also to base one of his early printings on the personal deck of Arthur Waite, which was then in the possession of his ninety-year-old daughter, Sibyl Waite. This deck has become the cornerstone of U.S. Games Systems’ line of Tarot cards. Indeed, the company now publishes this deck in four main color variations and several different sizes: an original Rider-Waite Tarot in giant, regular, and pocket sizes; the subtly but vibrantly recolored Universal Waite Tarot in regular, pocket, and tiny sizes; the neon-toned Albano-Waite Tarot and the richly-colored Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot, both in regular size. “We sought to please everyone's taste,” he explained. “On its simplest level, it’s like Coke, followed by Diet Coke, Classic Coke, Caffeine Free Coke; the natural progression of a great product. The Universal Waite Tarot has become very popular thanks to the richer colors, but some tarotists prefer the subtler colors found in the original Rider-Waite version.”
Although U.S. Games publishes the only version authorized by Waite’s heirs and the Rider Company’s successors, there is some controversy over the rights to Waite’s deck. Some authors claim the deck is in the public domain in the United States, because works published in 1909 can only retain their U.S. copyrights until 1984, and subsequent U.S. laws extending copyright were not retroactive to cover works that old. Some also claim that the artwork on the deck will enter the public domain in the UK in 2012, seventy years after Waite’s death, because although Waite was not the artist, the artwork was done “for hire.” Because Waite was the employer, this would theoretically make Waite the author of the deck, and copyright in the U.K. runs until seventy years after the death of the author.
Kaplan is firm in discounting both these claims. “The copyright protection on the Rider-Waite Tarot runs to 2021, which is seventy years after the date of death of the artist, [Pamela Colman Smith],” he said. The only way to test this understanding would be in court, but Kaplan doesn’t recommend this approach: “In the past several years, U.S. Games Systems has had to sue two large companies for copyright infringement,” he said. “In both instances we were successful, and received full reimbursement of substantial legal costs. U.S. Games Systems and its partners actively monitor and seek to protect all of its intellectual property rights.” If you want to use the artwork from the Rider-Waite Tarot, the simplest approach is to contact U.S. Games Systems and discuss licensing possibilities.
None of this would be that important, but the Rider-Waite deck happens to be the single most popular Tarot pack in the world, the deck that most people think of when they hear the word “Tarot.” In explaining the Rider deck’s great popularity, Kaplan astutely began with the characteristic that set the deck apart from the Tarots that had gone before it. Before this deck, all others but one were mostly made up of “pip” cards, cards that showed only a geometrical arrangement of the suit signs, much like numbered playing cards. Waite and Smith followed the one exception, a fifteenth-century deck now known as the Sola Busca pack, which depicted scenes on all seventy-eight cards. “The presence of full images on the forty pip cards of the Minor Arcana sets apart the Rider-Waite deck from all prior decks, except for the fifteenth century Sola Busca pack,” Kaplan explained. He went on to mention another reason for the deck’s continued popularity: “There are more Tarot books written about, and illustrated with, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck than any other Tarot pack, and this has certainly contributed to its popularity.”
Both of these main reasons boil down to one thing: the deck’s artwork makes the Rider-Waite Tarot so popular. In this regard, there is one figure that Kaplan feels has never gotten her full due, in the world of Tarot or the wider world of art: Pamela Colman Smith, the artist who was hired by Waite to illustrate the deck. Smith died penniless and lonely on September 18, 1951. Kaplan was in England shortly before her death, a relatively easy drive from her home, but there was one small thing that prevented his visiting her: at the time, he hadn’t yet heard of Tarot, so he had no idea who she was. He regrets the near miss to this day. “Pamela Colman Smith is someone very special to me,” he said sadly. “If I could go back in my life, it would be when I was in London as a student during the summer of 1951. I would have gone to Bude in southern England to meet with Pamela.”
Kaplan’s interest in Smith’s career began later, in the 1970s, the moment he understood how important her intuition had been to the creation of the deck. Many people credit Waite with telling Smith what scenes to put on the Minor Arcana cards. Others suggest that The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society to which both Waite and Smith belonged, directed her creativity. But, as Kaplan is fond of pointing out, several of the cards are copied from the Sola Buscadeck, and this suggests that Smith must have seen the complete set of photographs of that deck that had recently been acquired by the British Museum. Furthermore, Waite published his own descriptions of Minor Arcana cards, and some of them were far more vague and general than Smith’s concrete imagery. “It wasn't so much Arthur Edward Waite or the Golden Dawn,” Kaplan has concluded. “I think it was more Pamela Colman Smith and her own intuition that did the deck.”
In 1982, Kaplan started to collect everything he could find about “Pixie” Smith, as her friends knew her. It was then that he discovered her sad fate: destitute at the end of her life, she owed money to local grocery stores and pharmacies in Bude. Soon after her death, her belongings were auctioned off for a pittance to pay off her debts. Learning of this, Kaplan decided to put his skills as a collector to work. “I traveled to Bude, and ran full-page ads in the local newspapers advertising to purchase any of the former belongings that were sold at auction after her death,” he remembered. “Fortunately, I was able to locate some of her books, paintings, letters, and other personal belongings. I have her birth and death certificate, her will, her personal visitors book, her Missal, reviews by art critics of her early paintings, the original, complete sets of The Green Sheaf and A Broad Sheet (periodicals that featured her artwork), and many hand-colored plates from her publications, none of which, unfortunately, were able to assure her financial stability during her unhappy lifetime.” Kaplan even acquired a sorrowful poem that Smith wrote late in life, revealing how unhappy and isolated she was; it is entitled, simply, “Alone.”
One thing Kaplan has never been able to find is Smith’s gravesite. “I have interviewed dozens of people, written to hundreds of people, to no avail,” he lamented. “I have walked through every cemetery in Bude. Quite likely, Pamela was buried in a pauper’s grave. The records at the funeral home were destroyed by a fire several years after her death. I visited every home where she lived in Bude and at The Lizard, an artist’s colony at the southern tip of England. When and if I am fortunate enough to locate her last remains, it is my intention to place a memorial at her grave site.” In the meantime, there are other ways to prevent her being forgotten: Kaplan hopes to reproduce in a book all the material he has collected by and about Smith; he described the collection as “a treasure trove that I believe will be enjoyed by the many admirers of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck.”
Kaplan’s long relationship with the Waite deck, and with Pamela Colman Smith’s work, exemplifies the three main thrusts of his life in Tarot: he is a publisher of decks, a creator, compiler, and publisher of books about Tarot, and a collector of Tarot-related materials. In each of these areas, he is one of the most significant people in the world.
As a publisher of Tarot decks, Kaplan sees himself and his company as an art publisher, and the illustrations on the cards are the heart of each project for him. He had stories to tell about some of the classic decks he has published, focusing primarily on the artwork and the artists. He began with The Sacred Rose Tarot. “In 1977, when Johanna Sherman sent me The Fool card from The Sacred Rose Tarot deck, I included it in the color plates of Volume I of The Encyclopedia of Tarot,” he recalled. “It aroused a lot of interest, and U.S. Games Systems agreed to publish the complete deck. Months later, when Johanna brought us the original art, she actually cried. It was like passing to us her child that she had nourished, and I was so moved it was hard to hold back my own tears.”
Another deck he spoke about was The Native American Tarot. “The creator, Magda Weck Gonzalez, is descended from Shawnee Indians on her mother’s side, and her father was Boston Irish,” he recounted. “She wrote me in November 1981, asking if U. S. Games Systems would consider publishing a Tarot deck that her husband was planning to paint under her direction. Magda had studied the folklore and occult beliefs of her ancestors. Three months later, the Gonzalezes arrived in New York from Kentucky, and presented me with the original art on seventy-eight pieces of photocopy paper. Magda’s husband, who goes by the initials J.A., had prepared all the artwork in ink outline and colored pencil.” This deck has a rare distinction in the history of U.S. Games: it is the lightest submittal by weight of a complete Tarot deck that the company has ever received.
Finally, he described the classic deck Tarot of the Cat People, which remains a longtime favorite and continues to sell after twenty-five years. That deck had its roots in a single card, The Hierophant, that artist Karen Kuykendall had created for The Fantasy Showcase Tarot, a deck that featured a different artist for each card. Kaplan mentioned to the deck’s editor, Bruce Pelz, that he liked the card, and Pelz passed it on. Kuykendall then wrote to Kaplan, offering to prepare an entire 78-card deck. “Karen passed away some ten years ago, but I shall always have very fond memories of her,” Kaplan said. He recounted their first meeting in Arizona in 1980: “I remember having lunch with her and she wore a very ornate costume and a huge hat that sat on top of her head that miraculously did not fall over.” Kuykendall’s idea was to create a Tarot deck set in “The Outer Regions,” a science-fiction universe of her own creation. The people would be divided into five kingdoms with distinct cultural traits, corresponding with the four suits and the trumps in Tarot. Although each kingdom was distinctive in some ways, they all shared a great love and reverence for cats, and cats, she said, would appear on every card.
Kaplan and Kuykendall signed a contract, and Kuykendall got to work, painting each card in acrylic on Masonite board. For each card, she painted the main figures—cats and their people—and then masked them. With the main figures covered, she spattered paint gently onto the card using a toothbrush. In this way, she created subtle, speckled backgrounds for the cards. “She worked quickly, and within a year all the art was finished,” Kaplan recalled. “It was very exciting to see her art with the cats integrated into each card image, and the beautiful costumes she painted for each figure. At the time, U. S. Games Systems was located on 32nd street in New York City. I remember how heavy the package was when it arrived at our offices!”
Kaplan has nothing but praise for the artists he has published. “Each time we publish a new Tarot deck I am in awe of the talent of the artist,” he said. “I am constantly impressed by the different varieties and interpretations created by each artist. The most recent Tarot decks we published, Deviant Moon Tarot, Faerie Tarot, Fantastical Creatures Tarot, and Sacred Art Tarot, are good examples of beautiful artwork. Interestingly, Deviant Moon Tarot has generated more buzz than any Tarot deck in the last several years. The artwork is stunning, and Patrick Valenza is extremely talented, as are the other artists.”
Kaplan’s company is not only a Tarot publisher, but a major publisher of playing cards and card games as well. “U.S. Games Systems has two distinctly different product lines,” he explained, “the Tarot and spiritual area, and card games. These include historical cards, reproductions of early cards, civil war cards, military cards, educational cards and games, word games, and trump games such as the Wizard Card Game.” One of the company’s newest projects is a partnership with The History Channel, creating card games on historical themes that help people learn history. Kaplan has also recently set up a separate company for a new product, the Ball of Whacks, which he describes as “a fascinating creativity tool comprised of 180 rare earth Neodymium magnets imbedded inside 30 rhombic pyramids. The magnetic blocks can be taken apart and rearranged in endless creative ways.”
Still, U.S. Games Systems is probably best known for its Tarot line. Asked whether there are Tarot decks from other publishers that he wishes U.S. Games had published, Kaplan was quick to praise several decks from his competitors in the world of Tarot, but did not admit any real regrets. “U.S. Games Systems can only publish a limited number of decks each year,” he said. “There are some decks we are happy to see are available from other publishers, such as Tarot of the Old Path by Sylvia Gainsford and Howard Rodway, published by AG Müller & Cie. I have always admired the Robin Wood Tarot from Llewellyn. Every new Tarot deck published by U. S. Games Systems, or by other publishers, helps to expand the market for Tarot, and we welcome it.”
As noted above, Kaplan is also an author of Tarot books. In this area, he has put most of his energy since Tarot Classic into the four volumes of The Encyclopedia of Tarot. These four compendia of Tarot materials have reached over 2,400 pages, primarily illustrations of both published and unpublished Tarot decks. “The initial and continuing thought behind publishing the encyclopedia was to share what I have been fortunate enough to collect,” Kaplan said. “The four volumes describe over 1700 different tarot decks, and more than 26,000 cards are illustrated. This represents a resource that has never before existed in one location.”
Readers shouldn’t think that all you can find in The Encyclopedia of Tarot is deck illustrations, however. In fact, Kaplan has continued the work he began in the opening essays of Tarot Classic, and has tried to share as much information about the Tarot’s origin and development as he could. Thus, Volume I features chapters on the earliest known references to playing cards and Tarocchi, the name by which Tarot cards were first known; on various theories of the origins of Tarot; on the fourteenth and fifteenth century Visconti and Sforza families, who seem to have commissioned the very first Tarot decks; and on Tarot interpretation. The second volume goes into further depth on the Viscontis and Sforzas, on fifteenth-century Tarot artists, and on later Tarock packs. Volume III contains Kaplan’s excellent 45-page illustrated essay on Pamela Colman Smith, and Volume IV contains an interesting but brief article on Tarot by philosopher Allan Stairs. All four volumes contain extensive annotated bibliographies of published works on Tarot.
Kaplan’s inclusive approach to the history of Tarot has helped his books serve as handy reference works, despite not having the alphabetical structure common to most encyclopedias. Rather than espouse one theory as to the origins or meanings of the cards, Kaplan presents the theories of others with little editorializing. “If you ask me whether I believe in the myriad associations that people have come to believe about Tarot and where and how it started,” he said, “I am very pragmatic in my approach. Show me proof. That’s why I tried in the encyclopedias to list all possible origins of Tarot, so people can draw their own conclusions. I’d rather be the catalyst to new ideas than the lecturer who insists on his interpretation as the only one that is valid.”
Kaplan’s approach has paid off: anyone attempting to get a handle on the earliest Tarot decks in order to create a new theory, or even to pick among the theories already out there, will find The Encyclopedia of Tarot, especially the first two volumes, indispensable reading. One of the more recent theories, for example, is that the original Italian decks on which later Tarot packs were based had 70 cards: four suits of fourteen plus fourteen trumps. The most vociferous proponents of this theory, who run the website trionfi.com, credit Volume I of The Encyclopedia of Tarot for providing the original documents on which the theory is based.
Asked why he labored so hard on the encyclopedia, Kaplan spoke for his company, stating, “We view our position as one of responsibility to the tens of thousands of people who collect Tarot cards. A large amount of material about Tarot constantly flows to U.S. Games Systems by virtue of our strong presence in the Tarot world, and we serve as a clearinghouse of information. Each volume of the Encyclopedia of Tarot brings us closer to a fuller understanding of the importance of the cards, what they mean, where they come from, and how they can be used for enjoyment and to improve our lives.” Kaplan even promised that a fifth volume was on the way, albeit not very quickly. “I have collected enough new material for 300 or 400 pages,” he revealed, “and Jean Huets has kindly offered to co-author the new work. It is probably two to three years in the writing before U. S. Games Systems will be ready to publish it.”
Kaplan’s ability to publish a work like The Encyclopedia of Tarot was directly related to his status as one of the premiere Tarot and game collectors in the world. “I have been collecting tarot cards for forty years,” he said. “Many of my purchases came from frequent trips to Paris where I felt quite at home, having spent a year studying at the Sorbonne when I was eighteen. There were little shops on the left bank, especially on Rue Jacob, that had Tarot packs and books which back in the 1970s were not terribly expensive.”
Asked to describe some of his favorites, he is quick to point out that there are too many to list. However, he did agree to scratch the surface for us. “Certainly high on the list is the original Rider-Waite Tarot deck with the purple back design, accompanied by the first edition of The Key to the Tarot, both packaged in the original, two-piece red box,” he said. “There are stencil-colored packs from the nineteenth century, and especially beautiful are the Austrian tarock decks, used for the game of tarock, with finely engraved scenes on the trump cards.” Kaplan revealed that one of the books he treasures most is Jeux de Cartes Tarots et de Cartes Numerales du xiv au xviii Siecle. “Authored by M. Aine Duchesne, it was published in 1844 in a folio edition, beautifully bound, limited to 125 copies, and contains dozens of hand colored plates of rare cards,” he revealed.
Aside from the Tarot and playing card world, Kaplan most treasures his collection of domino and playing card boxes handmade by French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic Wars, circa 1800. The boxes were made of beef bone from the prisoners’ meals, and vegetable dyes for coloring. The boxes were probably made at Dartmoor Prison, where the prisoners sold them for tobacco money to local townspeople at Friday afternoon markets.
Kaplan’s collection is no longer in his hands, however. He made a decision years ago that someday he would split up his collection, selling individual items to people who really wanted them, rather than keeping them together and giving them to a museum or library. In this way, he felt, more people would get enjoyment out of his collection. “When I go to the Beinecke Library at Yale,” he explained, “or the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and I want to look at decks, I get to see one deck, and then wait half an hour, and then if I’m lucky I get to see another deck. That’s not what I wanted. The collection has more value if a thousand people get something they can enjoy and share.”
In keeping with this sentiment, Christie’s held a live auction in New York City in June 2006, selling a good part of the collection, including antique Tarot packs, tarock decks, American, European and Asian playing cards, card games, game boxes, trump indicators, oil paintings, prints, and ephemera. The auction included fascinating and rare items, such as a pack of playing cards found on a dead confederate soldier in Kentucky, Apache playing cards on rawhide, and many other curiosities. In the world of Tarot, who could resist a manuscript book filled with notes on Tarot, primarily from French sources, and a hand-colored pack of Tarot cards, that once belonged to Civil War general Abner Doubleday, who is also credited with the invention of baseball? In addition to his other accomplishments, Doubleday was a prominent member of the metaphysical movement known as Theosophy, and was fascinated with Tarot cards.
“The illustrated catalog ran a hefty three hundred pages and included 484 individual or group items,” Kaplan remembered. “I spent more than six months preparing the text for the catalog, which is now a reference work with great detail about each item.” Like his encyclopedias, he saw the catalog as a way to share the collection with people who could never afford to own most of the items.
Although it was in some ways hard to let the collection go, Kaplan also acknowledges an up side, beyond that of sharing the joy. “The auction and catalog opened many unexpected opportunities for me,” he said. The brand new Peterhof Playing Card Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, purchased some of the rarest items. The museum bought a Tarot of Mantegna card from 1470. It was a hand-colored Sun card, and they bought it for 3,500 dollars. They also bought a 1906 Ditha Moser Jugenstil Tarock deck for 2,400 dollars and one of the Napoleonic war POW boxes for 4,500 dollars. Their most expensive purchase was a hand-painted and gilded male page of staves Tarot card from a Milanese Visconti-Sforza family deck of ca. 1450. The artwork on the card is attributed to Bonifacio Bembo, who may be the first artist to create a Tarot deck. The card sold for 20,000 dollars.
After buying so many treasures from Kaplan, the Peterhof museum was eager to showcase his collection and his knowledge, which gave Kaplan a chance to visit Russia. “The Deputy Director, Nina Vernova, invited me as the guest of honor for the opening,” he said. “The inaugural ceremony took place in September 2007 before a throng of news reporters, T.V. cameras, and an 18-piece marching band in the true tradition of Russian pomp, befitting Catherine the Great.”
Kaplan’s publishing, writing and collecting have surely made him one of the best-informed people in the world of Tarot. His opinions on such questions as the origins and inner workings of the cards are therefore of interest to the whole Tarot world. Although he is willing to entertain most theories about Tarot’s origins, he shared the theories he feels are best supported by evidence. In his view, Tarot was not originally an occult tool or a way to preserve arcane knowledge, as some esoteric writers maintain. “Tarot was a card game for the nobility in fifteenth century northern Italy,” he stated. “The trionfi cards,” he continued, using the Italian word for the trumps or Major Arcana, “are iconographic images of important people and events of the times.” Kaplan pointed out that several extant frescoes in Milan show card play in the mid-fifteenth century. He also pointed out that the connection of the earliest Tarot decks to the Milanese Visconti and Sforza families is indisputable, since the early gold-illuminated cards all have the families’ heraldic devices as part of their iconography.
Kaplan stated with authority, “Court de Gébelin and Etteilla in the later part of the eighteenth century brought forth the idea of the esoteric connection with the cards.” Still, he does not pooh-pooh card reading, by any means. “In its simplest terms, a Tarot deck is an unpaged book,” he began. “Shuffle the cards and you can read a story. The imagery on the cards is so compelling that a good Tarot reader can use the cards effectively to reveal an imaginative story. I have witnessed some remarkable readings and I do not doubt it works.”
“The question”, Kaplan pointed out, “is ‘what do you mean by works?’ Since people can interpret the same cards in different ways”, he theorized, “Tarot cards probably aren’t revealing a preordained future”. So how are they working? “By stimulating creativity and intuition”, he suggested. “The cards can be very beneficial in terms of self help, meditation, and offering a new perspective to a troubling situation,” he explained. “I sincerely believe the cards can be very effective tools for some people, and I commend everyone who uses them to improve their outlook and life.”
Kaplan himself, however, is not a card reader. “One reason is that I view U.S. Games System as a publisher of art,” he explained. “It is important for me to remain removed from the use of the cards. This enables me and our staff to objectively consider all new submittals from the standpoint of the quality of the art and the presentation of the traditional symbols.” Similarly, he does not participate very much in the national or international “scene” of Tarot conventions, workshops, web forums, lectures, and magazines. “Time is my constraint,” he said. “I have so many things going at once that I have to prioritize what I do.” Nevertheless, he is happy the scene is there, and he supports it. “All the articles, books, meetings, and lectures serve to bring Tarot to a wider audience,” he said, “and I admire all the participants and their energy.”
Most of Kaplan’s energy lately has been devoted to keeping his business running smoothly. “U. S. Games Systems is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Some stores have been with us for the entire time. There are fewer individual-proprietorship stores and the chains dominate in some markets. Many accounts no longer exist.” On the other hand, Kaplan pointed out that the internet has drastically changed the way business is done. “In a given day we can receive orders from a dozen different countries that might otherwise not know how to contact us,” he said. “It’s an exciting time and it requires swift change to meet different circumstances.”
One of his strategies has been a greater emphasis on publicity. He especially credits the company’s Managing Editor and Publicity Director, Lynn Araujo. Araujo, he said, “has a hands-on approach to publicity, networking widely in the world of Tarot enthusiasts, helping the company keep its finger on the pulse of the market”.
Kaplan’s adaptability is another of his Fool-like qualities. Like his favorite Tarot card, he sees every day as a new beginning. “Every day is a learning process, and I for one learn something new each day,” he said. Which is all to the good.
After all, as he explained, “there is a lot more to be learned and understood about Tarot.”